It took only days for Lucienne Robillard to launch the fight of her political career - and a new job as the federal Liberal government's voice in Quebec. In one of three byelections won by the Liberals last week, the 49-year-old former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister jumped into the federal ring as the rookie MP from the Montreal riding of St-Henri/Westmount. Only three days later, and battling a head cold, Robillard defended her government's line in a two-hour televised debate on a CBC Radio-Canada poll on national unity. Of the four panelists, including members of the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois, Robillard had perhaps the most reason to smile at poll results, which indicated that fully 60 per cent of Quebecers would vote against Quebec separation. Instead, she scanned the poll's fine print for flaws, hidden messages and, even worse, potential political land mines. "All these results, the byelections and one poll, are good signals for us," she declared. "But it's really risky to say, 'That's it, we will win.' Anything can happen."
A fresh face in the long-held Liberal stronghold in Montreal, Robillard is expected to play a pivotal role in the upcoming referendum campaign - most likely from a perch in the federal cabinet. Despite attempts by the Liberal government to trumpet its own accomplishments last week, the party's byelection sweep in Ottawa and Quebec carves only minor changes in the political landscape, stealing one Quebec seat from the Opposition Bloc Québécois and raising the number of Liberals in the House of Commons to 177. But in the early stages of the campaign to decide Quebec's future, Robillard's victory, as well as those of francophone Liberal candidates in the Brome/Missisquoi and Ottawa/Vanier ridings, are considered by federalist forces to be small, but essential, steps in creating momentum and establishing credibility in Quebec. Said a senior Liberal adviser: "These are the kind of building blocks we desperately need."
In fact, after months of caution, the Liberal government is preparing a bolder approach to the national unity issue. Over the past six months, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé quietly put together a team of 40 civil servants to conduct polls, build a strategic plan and privately analyze the unfolding sovereignty debate in Quebec. Known as the Unity Operation, the team has an annual budget of at least $5.9 million, about the same amount that the PQ government is spending on a series of regional commissions to promote its sovereigntist option. Part of the federal group's task is to streamline government operations. But its main goal is clear. Said Massé: "The purpose is to give us a proper analysis of what is going on and to permit us to react quickly to whatever happens in all the provinces - but especially in Quebec."
Robillard will obviously play a key role in the exercise. According to Liberal insiders, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is expected to shuffle his cabinet, or add to it, to accommodate his star candidate. One possibility explored by Liberal strategists was to appoint Robillard as a junior minister in charge of intergovernmental affairs. That would free Massé, a former senior bureaucrat, to deal exclusively with the task of reorganizing the civil service. Another possible option involves shuffling the cabinet. Some Ottawa analysts speculated that Chrétien might bow to the many critics of the current health minister, Diane Marleau, and name Robillard, a former provincial health minister, as Marleau's replacement.
Whatever her public role, Robillard is destined to be a key leader of the Liberals' 20-member Quebec caucus. First elected to Quebec's national assembly in 1989, the former Montreal social worker rose quickly in former premier Robert Bourassa's cabinet, serving in culture, education and health portfolios. Once considered a possible successor to Bourassa, Robillard was asked by Chrétien to join the federal Liberals two weeks after her defeat in last September's Quebec provincial election. She will be an influential supporter of Chrétien's low-key strategy in the early stages of the referendum campaign. "We must be very careful with strategy," Robillard told Maclean's. "The official campaign will only start in the 45 intensive days before the actual referendum. Until then, you only put your cards on the table step by step."
Predictably, there were differing opinions about the significance of the Liberal windfall. Chrétien initially boasted that the government's byelection sweep was "a clear indication that the federalist forces are poised to win the referendum." The Liberal rhetoric cooled with reports of dismally poor voter turnouts - as low as 30 per cent in the civil service riding of Ottawa/Vanier - and the significantly narrow gap in popular votes in the Eastern Township riding of Brome. In fact, Premier Jacques Parizeau cast Bloc candidate Jean-François Bertrand's loss by just over 3,000 votes to Liberal Denis Paradis in the traditionally federalist Brome riding as good news. "It's more wind in our sails," said Parizeau. "Those who want to look at Brome/Missisquoi and say it indicates a setback for sovereignty - oh no, no. It indicates exactly the opposite."
Arguably, not one of the byelections was a true indication of the mood of Quebec - or even a reflection of the massive popularity of the federal Liberal government in most of Canada. Brome, with a 20-per-cent anglophone population, was one of the few ridings outside of Montreal to vote in favor of the failed Charlottetown accord in the 1992 constitutional referendum. A split of the federalist vote between the incumbent Tories and Liberals in the 1993 federal election, in favor of the Bloc's Gaston Péloquin, was considered something of a fluke. Last week's byelection - following Péloquin's death last summer in a car accident - was more a battle of pedigree. Paradis, the former head of the Quebec Bar Association, is the brother of Pierre Paradis, a former Quebec Liberal minister. Former PQ communications minister Jean- François Bertrand ran as the son of a popular Union Nationale premier, Jean-Jacques Bertrand.
In Ottawa/Vanier, civil servants, worried about cuts in the federal workforce, expressed their frustration by simply not voting. As expected, Mauril Bélanger, a 39-year-old regional government employee, easily won the longtime Liberal seat, vacated last fall by Chrétien's appointment of Jean-Robert Gauthier to the Senate. But the unusually low voter turnout of 30 per cent, as well as a strong second-place showing by the Reform candidate, took some of the edge off the Liberal victory.
Still, with the Quebec referendum approaching, the byelections served their purpose for the Liberals. Said Carleton University political scientist Robert Jackson: "They won the three elections, so nobody could say the sky is tumbling in. Secondly, they got a new and powerful female Quebec minister, if they want one." For a party that is quietly marshalling its resources for the battle ahead, both developments come as a welcome tonic.
Maclean's February 27, 1995